Alpacas in Alberta

I quivered slightly as I dipped forward before gaining my balance again. The sun warmed my back and brightened the stark wooden enclosure. Cloud shadows flitted across the dust, deepening the grooves and highlighting the ridges of the uneven ground. Twenty hairy faces gawked back at me. There was an uncertain energy to the group. Standing with my face angled over the fence wasn’t easy but I really wanted that kiss.

But the alpaca wouldn’t have it.

Must have been my personality. Yep, you read right. I was hoping for a kiss from an alpaca. Because I mean, how could anyone resist this face?

I know I’m wandering from my original blog statement about covering ethnic cultural events but this is too interesting to pass up sharing and my hometown is… shall we say ethnic-culturally-challenged. It’s still young as an international cultural centre. I’ve certainly seen moves in the right direction, in my opinion, towards accepting and celebrating its diverse populace, but it has a long way to go. Of course, the rodeo season is upon us! Look forward to posts on that!

Anyway back to the alpacas because they are the oddest, coolest creatures ever.

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Photo by Allison Declercq courtesy of the Brooks Bulletin.

I was visiting an alpaca farm called Pedersen Place near Tilley in Alberta, Canada. Monica and Pete Pedersen, the couple running it, were showing me around their place for an article I was writing for the Brooks Bulletin. The Bulletin graciously said I could use the photos I took on assignment, that didn’t go into the paper, in my blog.

The best part of interviewing the Pedersens, apart from their hospitality, was the story behind their entry into the alpaca industry.

It all began with a joke, Google, and an instant love.

After some kids suggested the couple take up animals on their 17 acres of acreage Pete jokingly told them he’d look into ostriches or emu.

A neighbor graduating from vet school mentioned her interest in specializing in camelids and the mention sparked Pete’s curiousity.

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Photo by Allison Declercq courtesy of the Brooks Bulletin.

One evening at work he Googled “alpaca” and found himself falling for the creature. According to his research alpacas were easy keepers, hardy and efficient eaters. And so after a tour of some of the alpaca farms in Alberta the Pedersens bought their first alpaca.

Now that the Pedersens are getting older they’ve decided to sell the alpacas. Well Monica wants to sell them all and Pete wants to keep some around… For staying connected to the industry he said while quietly adding that he likes the animals.

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Photo by Allison Declercq courtesy of the Brooks Bulletin.

It was easy to see the couple’s passion for alpacas. They had a whole store of knowledge on the industry in Alberta. It was crazy what they had to share! I learned that alpacas used to go for $15-20,000 dollars around 2001. This year at the futurity sale attached to an auction in Red Deer 14 alpacas were sold at an average price of $3,714 each!

Pete Pedersen said it was the bad economy and the fact that the population of alpacas in Canada has risen.

According to the Canada Alpaca site, (yes we have one of those) the national herd was 16,373 alpacas in 2006. We only started importing alpacas to Canada in the late 1980s!

The first large importation of these creatures was in 1992 when 362 alpacas were purchased from Chile. They had to be quarantined in New Zealand for a year and half before finally coming to Canada.

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Photo by Allison Declercq courtesy of the Brooks Bulletin.

170 were dropped off in Nisku, Alberta in a federal quarantine facility and the rest went to Mirabel, Quebec. After 150 days they were given to on-farm quarantine facilities before being released into various communities in Canada.

They say travel is good for understanding the world. In my 21 years I’m finding that to be true. Just thinking back to my first experience with the idea of careful enclosure of the world’s different species of animals and plants I’m struck by the memory of crossing into British Columbia, a province next-door to Alberta.

Following the Trans-Canada Highway through the towering Canadian Rockies I remember seeing a sign among the trees along the twisting winding road that insists travelers leave wood behind before crossing the border. It seems wood, dead or alive, could bring disease with it across the border and infect trees to the east or west of the borderline.

People aren’t really sure about what the rule covers however and sneak wood across all the time, much to the horror of others more versed in biology and ecological balance. I mean who would want the scary pine beetle from B.C. to make its way into Alberta? Apparently confused outdoorsmen.

In the animal world there are of course examples of the devastating results of introducing species to new areas. Consider the introduction of rabbits to Australia in the 18th century where they have no natural predators. Who knew cute and cuddly rabbits could be synonymous with rats and such a danger to foreign environments and agriculture.

But of course getting back on track with the alpaca integration—it appears Canada did a good job of introducing alpacas to Canada and the fashion industry has been gobbling up the produced fibres ever since.

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Photo by Allison Declercq courtesy of the Brooks Bulletin.

Pete mentioned that if we look back in history at the Incas of South America, wearing alpaca fibre clothing was not only considered a fashion statement but a social status emblem. The Incas used textiles to convey social or religious significance. I suppose it’s a lot like medals today.

After some extra research I discovered that to earn a piece of clothing was a prestigious honour in Incan society. The highest rank of clothing was woven from vinuca, a camelid that is believed to be the ancestor of domestic alpacas. The resulting cloth was so highly regarded that it was against the law for anyone other than royalty to wear it.

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Photo by Allison Declercq courtesy of the Brooks Bulletin.

Today of course anyone can wear alpaca clothing. Monica was telling me about selling the clothes made from the alpaca fibres of their farm processed by a nearby textile mill. She’d go to the Tilley craft show annually to sell her wares.

As she spoke of the craft show she set a pair of gloves before me and suggested I feel the inside. My fingers crept into the cave of softness and in an instant decided never to leave again as they dug into the nest of fibre. After some self-discipline I managed to pull my fingers from their comfort and back into the cruel cool air. Managing a grin as I placed the gloves back before Monica I put my hands under the table so they could mourn in peace.

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Photo by Allison Declercq courtesy of the Brooks Bulletin.

Now that the mill has shut down Monica sells the alpaca fibres raw. For the most part artists take the raw fibre from the Pedersens.

As I drove away from the Pedersen farm with a cloud of dust in my wake I couldn’t help but think of the amusing creatures and all the new things I’d learned about them. By the time I got home I had quite the story to tell my curious family and friends.

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